“I’m sorry,” she said, still covering her eyes. “I’m so sorry. I only came down for a drink of water, I promise.”
“Pressing one’s ear to a door would seem an ineffective way to quench thirst.”
Her shoulders wilted. “I didn’t mean to intrude. And I didn’t see anything, hand to my heart. I’ll be going to my chamber straightaway.” She covered both eyes with one hand and groped comically with the other. “Turn me around, if you would?”
“Are we playing blindman’s buff?”
“No.” Her throat flushed red. “Turn me the other direction. Toward the door. Point me back the way I came, and I’ll go up to bed.”
Chase went to the basin and worked the pump handle. The scene was so absurd, he’d nearly forgotten the throbbing pain in his hand. “I can’t send you to bed yet. I’m in need of your assistance.”
She swallowed audibly. “Assistance?”
“I can’t deal with this one-handed.”
She reeled a step in retreat, colliding with a shelf of copper butter molds, setting them a-rattle. Even though she’d backed herself into a corner, she still wouldn’t lower her hands from her eyes. “Can’t your . . . your guest provide you some relief?”
“I don’t have a guest.”
A single finger peeled away from her face. He caught a glimpse of dark eyelashes through the gap.
“I thought you were entertaining a visitor,” she said.
He looked at the door to his retreat, then back to her. “Why would you think that?”
“I heard . . .” She swallowed and whispered faintly, “. . . banging. And groaning.”
He chuckled. “If you hoped to hear something salacious, I’ll have to disappoint you. I was hanging paneling. On the wall. With a hammer and nails. And I seem to have sliced my thumb. Hence the groaning.”
“Oh.” She lowered her hands and gave a nervous laugh. “Thank heavens. What a relief. I mean, I’m not relieved about your wound, of course. I’m sorry about that. I’m just glad you’re not—”
“Bare to my skin and covered in well-earned sweat?”
He gritted his teeth. He would have loved to draw out the amusement, but his thumb wouldn’t be ignored any longer. “The cook keeps a bit of plaster up there.” He jutted his chin toward a high shelf atop the cupboard. “If you’d kindly fetch it for me.”
She didn’t do as he asked, but approached him and had a look at his wound. “You can’t just smear plaster over this.”
“It’s a small wound.”
“But a deep one. It must be cleaned thoroughly.”
“I’ve seen wounds like this one fester. Bigger and stronger men have succumbed to less.”
“It’s truly none of your concern,” he said, growing testy at the suggestion of her tending the wounds of bigger and stronger men.
“It is my concern. If you die of gangrene or lockjaw, I’ll never be paid.”
Fair enough. He offered her his hand for dressing.
She washed the wound thoroughly with boiled water from the kettle and strong lye scullery soap. He winced. Damn, bugger, blast.
Then she slipped the flask from his waistcoat pocket. “May I?” Having uncapped it, she lifted it to his lips. To his quizzical expression, she replied, “You’re going to want it. This will hurt.”
Chase took a sip. He wasn’t about to admit any pain, but he wouldn’t refuse a swallow of good brandy.
As he watched, she poured a stream of amber spirits directly into his wound, letting it trickle until it overflowed. Then she pressed the wound to purge more blood and did it again.
On the outside, Chase was determined to look manful and impervious to pain.
On the inside . . . Christ.
When she capped the brandy and set the flask aside, he exhaled with relief.
She turned to search the kitchen stores. “Now for some vinegar.”
He winced as she began her fresh round of torture. “How are the girls’ lessons coming along?”
“Slowly. I’ve been attempting to earn their confidence, but they have the sort of wounds that won’t be easily healed. How long ago did their parents die?”
“I’ve no idea,” he admitted. “I don’t even know if they’re orphans. They could be illegitimate.”
“They’re not . . . ?” She broke off, abandoning the query.
“Mine?” He shuddered at the suggestion. “I would still have been at school when Rosamund was born. It’s true that I possess a natural talent for seduction, but I wasn’t that precocious. All I know is that their father never claimed them, and the woman they called mother died three years ago, and they’ve been passed around relations and schools ever since.”
She clucked her tongue. “Despite all their mischief, I pity them.”
You ought to be pitying me, he thought.
Having a woman this enticing living under the same roof was a constant temptation. And Chase battled temptation with approximately the same success as a seagull battling the Royal Navy.
Out of sight was not out of mind. At night, he found himself thinking of her. Upstairs, alone, in the dark. But worse by far were the mornings. For God’s sake, he began each day holding her hand. That, and trying like hell to make her laugh. He hadn’t managed it quite yet, but most days he wrangled a reluctant smile. That alone was worth four flights of stairs.